The Massachusetts Medievalist on Odysseus’s wondrous adventures and self-promoting narrative (Odyssey, Books 9-12)

The impetus for this online reading group was my realization this past year that most of my undergraduate students hadn’t read Homer’s Odyssey, although some of them said that they had read excerpts from it.  The episode with the Cyclops (Book Nine) is without question the most frequently-anthologized section of The Odyssey, as it stands on its own pretty well and showcases Odysseus’s character — his cleverness (the scheme to blind the Cyclops and escape from the cave) as well as his arrogance (his continued taunting after they’ve barely escaped).  Most undergraduates have probably read a version of Book Nine somewhere in their academic pasts.

The Cyclops episode kicks off Odysseus’s narrative in Books 9-12, which is something of a travelogue of miraculous, supernatural adventure – every book in this week’s reading focuses on episodes outside of mortal, human experience so that the settings and characters seem like an endless parade of wonders: the drugged-up Lotus Eaters; the one-eyed, monstrous Cyclops; Circe the powerful, sexy witch; the ghosts of the land of dead and Odysseus’s maneuverings to call them; the seductive and deadly Sirens; the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis…… you may feel like you already know many of these archetypal figures, as they appear in a variety of retellings of the Greek myths, not just here in the epic.

In the midst of Odysseus’s flashback, Homer has a fabulous moment when the framed narrative breaks (Fagles XI.378, Wilson XI.335), when he reminds us that Odysseus is sitting in Alcinous’s hall and telling his story. Odysseus stops at what could be called a cliff-hanger; he has told us how he has spoken with Tiresias and some ghosts of women in the land of the dead, then states that “I cannot name each famous wife and daughter / I saw there; holy night would pass away / before I finished” (Wilson XI. 330-332).  The voice of the poet/narrator returns to remind us that the Phaiacians are Odysseus’s ‘real’ audience: “They were silent, spellbound, / listening in the shadowy hall” (Wilson XI.335-336). Odysseus allows himself to be convinced to continue, with the promise of even more, and more elaborate, parting gifts when the Phaiacians take him home.  The moment can come as something of an interrupting jolt, as Odysseus has “spellbound” us, the modern readers, as well as the Phaiacians — we have forgotten that he is safely in a palace, drinking wine and recounting his adventures.

A point which leads me to a warning about Odysseus and his famous flashback in Books 9-12: he is not an objective narrator.  The poet/narrator isn’t objective either (can any narrative voice be objective? A philosophical question for another time, perhaps), but Odysseus is definitely telling the story the way he wants it told. It’s convenient that everyone else who journeyed with him from Troy is now dead – there is no one to contradict him, or correct a faltering memory, or to provide information about events that occurred when he was absent.

Just as an example, Odysseus relates his conversation in Hades with Agamemnon about the horrors inherent in women (on his homecoming from Troy, Agamemnon was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus). Agamemnon says that “there’s nothing more deadly, bestial than a woman / set on works like these — what a monstrous thing / ……the queen hell-bent on outrage” (Fagles XI. 484-490); Odysseus agrees with and expands upon this point, stating that “Zeus from the very start, the thunder king / has hated the race of Atreus with a vengeance — / his  trustiest weapon women’s twisted wiles” (Fagles XI.494-496).

Odysseus and Agamemnon both fail to mention the extremely legitimate causes of Clytemnestra’s anger. Before the war, Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to get the right wind to blow the fleet to Troy. After the war, Agamemnon brought home as captive war-prize and concubine the Trojan princess Cassandra, who had been a priestess of Apollo. So while maybe Clytemnestra wasn’t justified in murdering her husband, she certainly had reasonable grievances that Agamemnon and Odysseus don’t mention.

We have to trust Odysseus, but (and here again is Homer’s brilliance) we already know that Odysseus is wily, clever, manipulative. Be careful: He’s messing with us in the same way that he messed with the Trojans, with the Cyclops, and now with the Phaiacians. He’s very seductive and very good at getting what he wants. He will need all of these skills when he finally gets home; meanwhile, he has seduced us, his audience, and we are rooting for him, knowing that he will have to get back to Ithaca and deal with the upstart suitors, his adolescent son, and his grieving wife.

4 Replies to “The Massachusetts Medievalist on Odysseus’s wondrous adventures and self-promoting narrative (Odyssey, Books 9-12)”

  1. Excellent read! Your insight on seeing these episodes through the frame of Odysseus’ retelling sent me back to the lines where O does his (in)famous boast as they flee Polyphemus and it’s fascinating how justified the whole exchange is. Though O’s crew rebukes him for his first volley of insults, once O includes his name in the taunts Polyphemus moans that his blinding is actually the culmination of a prophecy by Telemus. He then begs O back to shore to offer guest-gifts and a speedy journey home. This exchange implies that O is operating on god-sanctioned hubris, putting him on a moral high-ground even when committing the most classical of sins. The retelling thus feels more like someone putting spin on a story where they know they’re in the wrong so that they’ll come out as the good guy – which reinforces the two main character traits I’ve come to associate most deeply with O: both very much a human and very much a bastard.

    1. Yes, “spin” is such a good word here! And he’s very strategic – he didn’t even reveal his identity until he was finally asked, sort of a false-hubris? Because he could have just walked out of the ocean and said, “I’m Odysseus -will you guys help me out since I’m already such an important hero?” but he knew the effect of his identity would be that much greater if he waited….so I’m appalled but also very impressed.

      1. Jer and Dr. D,

        To add to your comments on Odysseus’ bias in the retelling of his travels, there were two incidents that stood out to me as being fairly suspect. Both involve monumental mistakes that are conveniently blamed on Odysseus’ men (who as Dr. D mentioned can neither confirm nor deny the report as they are long gone).

        The first controversial event is the crew’s decision to open the oxhide bag while Odysseus slept, which then releases the winds that their ship hurling back to the island of Aeolus. I found it rather peculiar that Odysseus decided to sleep once he was finally in view of his homeland after years of being at war and lost at sea. Hypothetically, he very well could have opened the bag himself in an attempt to reach home faster, and in hindsight decides to blame this folly on his deceased men.

        The second event in question is the crew’s decision to hunt the cattle of the Sun God after being advised against it by their leader. Again, Odysseus is coincidentally away sleeping during this folly. I found it to be a strange decision on his part to leave his men unattended, knowing full well that the crew was growing hungry and desperate while surrounded by temptation.

        Dr. D’s comments on Odysseus’ subjective point of view allowed me to view these events with greater scrutiny, and to contemplate alternate possibilities for how these events transpired and how the hero’s personal account could misconstrue what happened to play to his own favor. Both mishaps involve the same excuse, Odysseus was sleeping and thus free from blame. It is very likely that he could have played some part in these events; he has already admitted to defying the warnings of others in certain respects, such as his choice to ignore Circe’s guidance for dealing with Scylla, “Then I ignored/ Circe’s advice that I should not bear arms;/ it was too hard for me” (Wilson XII. 227). Clearly, Odysseus is comfortable with ignoring the warnings of others when it is convenient for him; it is very possible this was the case with these two unfortunate events and Odysseus has since resolved to put a “spin” on the stories in order to save face.

  2. Yes! “I was asleep so it wasn’t my fault” does seem a little suspicious. I also suspect that the performative nature of the epic comes into play here (this idea will also be crucial in book 19) – the bard/performer could inflect the lines with emotion or tone to make O more or less believable, more or less earnest. So in a live performance, he could be like a White House Press Secretary or like your old family doctor or anywhere in between.

    This time around, I have to say that I was sympathetic to the crew that ate the cattle of the Sun. I’d rather incur the anger of a god than die from hunger. If it’s death either way, I think a quick smiting from divine wrath would be preferable to slow starvation. Just sayin’.

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